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The US Must Finally Acknowledge That Israel Is an Apartheid State

The inhibition on describing apartheid as “apartheid” has been eroded by two 2021 reports confirming the allegation.

A Palestinian woman inspects her destroyed house after an Israeli airstrike in Beit Lahia on the northern Gaza Strip on May 13, 2021.

Part of the Series

The Israeli military’s latest airstrikes on Gaza have already killed 83 Palestinians, including 17 children, and now leaders of the Israel Defense Forces say they plan to approve plans later today for a ground invasion of Gaza too. At least 7 Israelis have died, including one child. Meanwhile videos are circulating of far right Israelis mobbing and lynching Palestinians throughout Israel, as documented by Mondoweiss. Many have noted that the lynch mobs are fueled by Israel’s state violence.

Just two weeks ago, Democrats in the House of Representatives doubled down on their commitment to the U.S. providing unconditional military aid to Israel, despite mass killings and other human rights abuses committed by the Israeli government against Palestinians.

Since that time, Israeli police stormed the Al-Aqsa Mosque in East Jerusalem, firing rubber bullets, tear gas and stun grenades at Palestinian civilians there. In defense Hamas has fired hundreds of rockets, which have largely been disabled by Israel’s missile defense system before reaching Israeli targets.

Just hours ago, as Stephen Zunes notes: “The Biden administration … blocked an otherwise unanimous UN Security Council effort to end the increasing violence in Palestine and Israel. All 14 other members were ready to adopt the statement but Biden, like Trump, insists on making the U.S. an international outlier.” Meanwhile Secretary of State Antony Blinken furthered the U.S.’s outlier reputation by pledging loyalty to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

In this interview, international relations scholar Richard Falk breaks down the latest news commentary on the recent bloodshed and human rights violations, analyzes the political language used to reference the region, discusses the tragic legacy of Trumpism, and examines Biden’s place within the foreign policy consensus.

Daniel Falcone: Palestinian American journalist Mariam Barghouti recently asked, “Why is it that American politicians cannot say the words ‘Israeli apartheid?’” Could you comment on the escalated use of force related to this idea?

Richard Falk: As an international crime, apartheid is a collective crime against a distinct race that is one step down in severity from genocide. As death is the core of genocide, it is as a practical matter irreversible, and its legacy lingers as the instance of the Holocaust illustrates. In fact, Israeli apartheid may be partly understood as an unintended consequence of the Holocaust. Israel probably could not have been successfully established without widespread international support, which would not have been so forthcoming without the shame and liberal guilt of the West in doing so little to oppose the extreme antisemitism and racism of Nazi Germany.

In any event, the Palestinian people were made to pay the price of Nazi wrongdoing in the form of the imposition of a non-Palestinian state in their homeland at the very time when European colonialism was unraveling elsewhere in the world. In such a setting, it was to be expected that Palestinian society would resist, and that Israel’s security would depend on effective means of repression. Such an interaction was accentuated by the characteristics of the Zionist project that sought a Jewish state that was governed in accordance with democratic principles. Given the premise of such ethnic politics, this led to ethnic cleansing to ensure stable Jewish demographic control of the state. It also meant discriminatory treatment of immigration and residency, denying Palestinians basic rights while giving Jews many privileges based on identity alone.

American mainstream political arenas and media are frightened and intimidated by the prospect of being labeled as antisemitic. The widely relied upon IHRA (International Holocaust Remembrance Anniversary) definition of antisemitism would easily result in any allegation of apartheid being treated as proof positive of antisemitism. This is so, despite respected studies concluding that Israel’s practices and policies satisfy the definition of apartheid as set forth in the 1973 UN International Convention on Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid. And despite the Rome Statute (2002), the treaty governing the operations of the International Criminal Court regard apartheid in Article 7(h) as one type of crime against humanity.

This inhibition on describing apartheid as “apartheid” has been eroded by two 2021 reports confirming the apartheid allegation. The first report is by B’Tselem, the leading Israeli human rights NGO, that characterizes Israeli apartheid as the imposition of Jewish dominance upon the Palestinian people in the territory governed by Israel; that is, from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea that encompasses both Israel proper and the Occupied Palestinian Territories of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem.

The second report, by Human Rights Watch, reaches the apartheid conclusion after an exhaustive examination of systematic Israeli racial discrimination and reliance on inhuman measures resulting in Palestinian victimization in furtherance of the Zionist project of maintaining a Jewish state. Back in 2017, I co-authored a report with Virginia Tilley, under UN auspices (Economic and Social Commission for West Asia, or ESCWA) that investigated the apartheid allegation and concluded that Israeli practices and policies were an instance of apartheid, which we felt was best understood in relation to the Palestinian people (including refugees and exiles) rather than confined to territory.

Juan Cole told me that, “Biden will pressure the Israeli government to lighten up behind the scenes but will back Israel in public.” It’s been recorded that Israel has called on Biden to stay out of the conflict. How in your estimation, will the president respond to the “Jerusalem crisis?”

On the basis of past behavior and the initial statements of close advisers, it is most likely that Biden visors will call for calm, while making one-sided and unconditional criticisms of the rockets and artillery shells from Gaza fired by Hamas and Islamic Jihad as “provocations” and “escalations” of the underlying conflict. The one-sidedness is almost certain to be underscored by refraining from any criticism of Israeli responses, which are almost certain to be disproportionate in terms of casualties, devastation and firepower.

The one-sidedness will be further highlighted by the absence of direct reference to Israeli provocations in Jerusalem such as right-wing settlers marching through East Jerusalem shouting “Death to Arabs” or municipal plans to expel a series of Palestinian families from their homes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem on the basis of flimsy legal pretexts. The admitted goal is to prepare the way for further Jewish settlements, which is regarded by almost every Palestinian as a continuation of the ethnic cleansing that began in 1947, and has occurred periodically in 74 ensuing years. The Palestinian steadfastness (sumud) in Sheikh Jarrah is epitomized by their slogan “we will not be erased.”

Biden places a high priority on sustaining a bipartisan image in the conduct of foreign policy, especially with respect to Israeli policies. He has already indicated that the United States will accept Trump’s unlawful initiative of moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem; will not question the unlawful annexing of the Syrian Golan Heights; and has applauded the normalization agreements between Israel and Arab countries so heralded as triumphant diplomatic achievements during the last stage of the Trump presidency.

Although there is some friction from a small group of Democrats in Congress resulting from such an imbalanced approach, it is strongly endorsed by both political parties and by the powerful lobbying influence of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Leading Biden foreign policy representatives have made clear that the $38 billion military aid package will not be affected by negative findings in the annual country reports of the State Department, which signals a green light for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s aggressive approach to relations with the Palestinians.

Lawrence Davidson points out that, “The US State Department has refused to condemn the death of children in Gaza. The news media continues to insulate the crimes of the state and reports in the passive voice. For example, consider this recent headline: “At Least 26 Killed by Israel’s Retaliatory Rocket Strikes in Gaza, Palestinian Officials Say.” Has any dimension of the press coverage improved, however, in your estimation?

There is a subtle change in the coverage of the liberal print media, as highlighted by The New York Times and The Washington Post. Instead of reporting only Palestinian violence as objectionable, there is more of a tendency to place nominal blame for periodic crises on both parties. I regard this as conveying a distorting image of symmetrical responsibility shared equally by Palestine and Israel while overlooking the structural realities of gross inequality arising from Israeli oppression and expanding territorial claims. It is always deceptive to treat the oppressor and the oppressed as if equal.

As here, the oppressor acts contrary to applicable international law and elementary morality while the oppressed is countering by exercising rights of resistance and suffering the deprivation of basic rights. Of course, the tactics of resistance should be scrutinized by reference to legal and moral constraints, but without losing sight of overwhelming structures of dominance and the far greater harm done by state violence than by the violence of resistance.

Lawrence Davidson also recently explained that, “It is important to remember the sequence of events here: The latest started with an effort on the part of Israel to evict Palestinian families in East Jerusalem — itself part of an effort of ethnic cleansing. Then came the Palestinian protests which were met with police violence and attempts at suppression, leading to the wounding of hundreds. This was followed by rocket fire from Gaza. Followed by Israeli airstrikes on the city and its outskirts.” And sure enough, just hours ago, it was reported that “Israel launches airstrikes after rockets fired from Gaza in day of escalation.” This headline conveys that the situation is somehow symmetrical and the media’s interest in maintaining a false balance. Is this a correct observation?

As my last response suggests, one of the worst flaws in liberal journalism is to treat asymmetries as if symmetrical. Such a practice has been notorious in relation to the so-called peace process or Oslo diplomacy, where the Palestinians are made to share equal responsibility with the Israelis. This is so despite Israel making clear that its acceptance of “peace” with the Palestinian people depends on Palestine giving up its inalienable right of self-determination as well as claims to having its capital in Jerusalem or challenges to extensive Israeli armed settlements unlawfully established.

I have a friend who recently wrote, “Israel, as an ethno-state is [on the verge of] committing suicide.” This in reaction to the May 7 headline “Palestinians, Israel police clash at Al-Aqsa mosque; 53 hurt.” What kind of political consequences do you perceive the Israelis to suffer?

There may be an ambiguity in your friend’s assertion of Israel being on the verge of committing suicide. Is this because Israel is encountering difficulty in the enforcement of its claims as an ethnocracy to occupy all of the ethno-religious space? Or is it because Israel has been compelled to challenge the red line of Islamic identity, by entering Al-Aqsa Mosque during Ramadan, attacking and injuring hundreds of Muslim worshipers, thereby threatening what it sought to achieve by the normalization agreements? Time will tell.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

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